Below is an interview with the Tulsa World
By Kyle Hinchey
Paul Brunton didn’t process how close he came to dying until after the transport helicopters landed at the small special forces base in South Vietnam.
Bullet holes covered the exteriors of the two aircraft, and Brunton, a first lieutenant in the Army’s elite Mobile Strike Force, questioned how they didn’t drop out of the sky.
“Those helicopters had more holes in them than the law allows,” said Brunton, now a 72-year-old criminal defense attorney who runs his own law firm in downtown Tulsa. “They don’t fly with as many holes as those things had in them.”
Moments earlier, Brunton’s 12-man team was pinned down by hundreds of North Vietnamese soldiers on the west side of a landing zone about the size of a football field. The mission — to ambush and capture an enemy combatant for the purpose of gathering intel — didn’t go as planned.
It later occurred to Brunton they had probably been set down in the middle of a regimental base camp, meaning roughly 4,000 hostiles were scattered throughout the area. It didn’t take long for them to be found.
The new mission was to get out of there without being killed. Brunton, the team leader, called in artillery to blast away the surrounding army as they waited for their rides to reach them. When they arrived, the pilots landed on the east side of the landing zone, the opposite of where they were instructed to go.
For Brunton’s men to have any chance of making it home, they had to run 50 meters in the open as an angry and ever-growing enemy force took aim. And so they did.
Brunton remembers praying during the mad dash to the helicopters. The words come easy to him, as he’s said them many times. “God, if you get me out of this one, I’ll get myself out of the rest of them.”
The 23-year-old took a seat at the bar later and couldn’t stop shaking. An uncomfortable number of narrow escapes and brushes with death changed something inside the cocky thrill-seeker who didn’t hesitate to sign up for U.S. Army Special Forces after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1966.
“I kind of had a reputation of being wild and crazy, so I thought I fit right in,” he said. “But after you’ve been there and escape some close calls is when I began to think, ‘What am I doing here? Do I really want to do this?’ ”
‘A personal journey’
Brunton departed OU with a degree in Asian history and a need for self-discovery. Back then, many universities had a mandatory two-year ROTC program and allowed students to volunteer for the final two years. Those who did so locked themselves into a six-year military commitment.
Brunton didn’t pledge to risk his life for God and country, as he puts it.
“I was in the military for myself,” he said. “It was a personal journey. There was a war going on, and I thought this was an opportunity to find out what it’s all about.”
But if he was going to get shot at, he figured, he wanted to surround himself with people who were good at shooting back. He also liked the green berets worn by the U.S. Army Special Forces because they were “really cool looking.”
And so Brunton underwent the necessary training and earned the rank of first lieutenant. His first role after arriving at special forces headquarters in November 1967 was supply officer, which he described as basically a “social chairman.”
Just a few months into the job, Brunton happened upon a Mobile Strike Force colonel from Enid, and the two started to talk about life in Oklahoma. The colonel, Bo Gritz, shifted topics and told him he needed a new lieutenant on his team. His kept getting killed.
“I was about half blown through the wind and said, ‘I’m your man, Bo.’ Literally the next day I was on a helicopter with him,” said Brunton, who had never seen combat up to that point.
Proving his mettle
The job of the now-defunct Mobile Strike Force was to find the enemy, confirm their location and get out so that a larger conventional force could be deployed. Missions also consisted of nabbing prisoners, committing sabotage and setting up ambushes along the extensive trail system used by North Vietnamese soldiers to move around.
They operated in small numbers, with teams generally ranging from six to 20 units depending on the objective. A direct engagement with the enemy often meant death.
Although his rank designated him second-in-command of his team, Brunton was required to take orders from a staff sergeant until he proved his mettle. He did so during a six-man mission to scout a trail that looked more like a road along the Cambodian border.
As Brunton went ahead of the group to take some pictures, he heard what sounded like a sizable army coming his way and retreated back to report the news to his sergeant. They took cover along the treeline and hoped to let the soldiers pass. Only after it was too late did they realize their radio antenna was sticking eight feet in the air.
“If they looked over here and saw that antenna, it wouldn’t take them three minutes to overrun us,” he said. “So I told my sergeant, ‘Why don’t we put these artillery pieces to work and let’s just shoot the s--- out of that road?’”
The sergeant agreed, and for the next several hours, they called in the artillery that had been previously plotted along the road. The next morning, after the group managed to fall back under cover of darkness to wait for extraction, they received an order to go back and count the bodies.
The order dismayed Brunton, who told his sergeant doing so would be suicide. The man said he liked his style and radioed back a “roger that” to the commanding officer. They ran the opposite direction and spent the rest of the night listening to the enemy scour the area.
Back at base, the sergeant told Gritz that Brunton was ready to lead. From that point on, he became responsible for planning missions and selecting his team.
‘Just like a combat mission’
After months of weary fighting and feelings of disillusionment, Brunton’s superiors offered him a way out. He was told he could get an early release if he returned to school and decided to become a lawyer, like his grandfather.
Casualties in the war heightened following his leave, and Brunton’s outfit suffered significant losses.
“After I got out, I realized that making the decision to get out when I did was a wise one, or otherwise I’d be dead,” he said.
He earned a law degree from the University of Tulsa in 1971 and served as a Tulsa County public defender from 1972 to 1974, when his former classmate Frank Keating encouraged him to run for his seat in the House of Representatives. He gave it a go and served three terms.
Since then, he’s opened his own law firm and served as the vice president of the Oklahoma Bar Association.
Brunton said his experience in Vietnam propelled his career as a lawyer and gave him the focus and drive to find success.
“I view walking into a courtroom and a jury trial like a combat mission,” he said. “You can’t put me in a situation any more frightening than what I’ve been in. The rest of my life’s been a piece of cake.”
Tulsa World Media Company